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How Babies Can Help Us Practice Better

Music and language are frequently compared. The similarities are quite obvious with a little thought but our first spoken language we mastered as young children without any formal tuition. We had to pick it up as we went along. Mastering an instrument is very difficult to achieve in the same manner but there is a lot we can take from babies learning to talk that can help us to learn faster and play music better.

When we start to learn the guitar, somebody shows us our first chord. “Place one finger here, and another here, and now strum the strings!” It takes time but we get there eventually and when that first chord sounds reasonably good we move on to another chord. Our entire learning process is already influenced by those first two chords. One thing after another, linear, constantly building, trying to put pieces together to achieve something musical.

When infants start learning to talk, there is nobody to show them how to move their tongue or shape their lips. They are too young to take talking lessons. So they start learning to make basic sounds and putting them together, all by themselves. They try to imitate sounds that people around them are making. And they keep trying and eventually they succeed! “Ba!” And what happens next?

Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, baaaa…!

Baby chatter! It might be just be “Ba!” but they never get bored or frustrated doing just that one thing. And when new sounds do get discovered and they all get practised together and mixed up. Learning from the people around them, they also learn about context – what words to use and when. Eventually they build a fluid and vast vocabulary.

That process gives us important ideas that we can apply to learning our instrument too. All too often we often practice something until we get it right, or for a set period of time, and then we move on to the next thing. But babies don’t do that, they don’t move on to something new so quickly, or do just one thing at a time and we shouldn’t either.

Just think about it – let’s imagine a particularly difficult passage or a chord change we want to learn. We sit and we practice, trying to get our hands and fingers to make the sounds we want to hear. Perhaps, say, 20 minutes or an hour later, we succeed! Hooray! Well done! That done, we move on to the next thing to learn. But what have we just done? We have spent 20 minutes (or an hour) of our time doing something badly before we got it right, just one time. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to continue practising doing it right for at least as long as we spent doing it wrong?

We should take more time to perfect what we have achieved, rather than achieving it just once. Doing so will save you a lot of time and frustration in the long run. It makes things easier to play the next time we attempt it. That’s where fluidity and accuracy comes from. Ever said to yourself  “Damn, I got this right last week, why can’t I do it today?” Now you know why.

And babies don’t have a straight ‘linear’ practise schedule for learning to talk. They mix it up, moving between new and old skills. We should too, alternating between new things we have yet to master and other things we want to improve or refresh. Rather than spend 30 minutes learning scales, try three blocks of ten minutes, interspersed with working on other aspects of our playing. This “little and often” approach can be more effective than one concentrated session.

And just like babies, we should also spend time trying out different variations and combinations of what we have just learned. Perhaps you just learned how to go from a D chord to a G chord? Great! Now alternate back and forth, D to G and G to D. Why learn it in just one direction, right? And then we should do it in the context of something bigger, so add another chord in front of or behind these two: try blocks of C-D-G, or A-D-G, or Em-D-G. Then reverse the order of those blocks. It may seem like a lot of extra work when all you wanted was D and G chords but in the long run it’s more effective and gives us a strong head-start on future skills.

So what about the skills necessary for conversation, i.e. improvisation? Just learned a new lick from a favourite solo? Awesome! So now let’s take another tip from babies: explore the context. Ask yourself, what chord is that lick being played over? How does that lick sound over other chords in the same song? Are there chords it doesn’t sound good with? How do those chords relate to the key you’re in? And it needs to be part of something bigger, part of a longer musical phrase, so try adding other phrases before and after it and practice until they all run smoothly together.

Of course babies have all the time in the world and they do chatter incessantly. The rest of us don’t have that free time: homework, jobs, friends, and family all get in the way – life, in other words! Not only do we need to practice, we need to be smart about it too. And we can’t dismiss what babies do as less efficient.

One of the things I love most about music and the guitar is that no matter how good we are today, we can all be a little better tomorrow, and even better next week. We just need to mix our grown-up determination and thought with some child-like repetition and exploration.

Baby and Guitar
Photo by Dean Wissing